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Democrats’ Nancy Pelosi dilemma, explained

You can’t beat something with nothing.

Restive Democrats are complaining again: Nancy Pelosi is making it hard for them to win elections. Her time is up.

The charge is led this time by a small band of mostly younger members who see Jon Ossoff’s defeat in a Georgia special election as an indictment of the longtime party leader and a moment when the future of the party is in serious doubt.

“It’s time for Nancy Pelosi to go, and the entire leadership team,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice.

Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, perhaps the most vocal anti-Pelosi Democrat, said last week that “we as Democrats have to come to terms with the fact that we lost again,” before calling for “a new generation of leadership.”

Congressional Democrats have lost a lot lately. They suffered wave elections against them in 2010 and 2014, gained only small numbers of seats in 2012 and 2016, and have gone 0 for 4 in efforts to poach red seats from the GOP in post-Trump special elections.

Trump’s high disapproval ratings are the party’s best chance, they believe, to retake the House. But anti-Pelosi ads are hard to escape — and some Democrats worry that having a party leader with a baked-in underwater approval rating neutralized the natural advantages of opposition.

Earlier this year, newer members got behind Rep. Tim Ryan’s challenge to Pelosi’s leadership, and it’s clear they’re not mollified by anything they’ve seen since. At the same time, progressive activists have grown increasingly frustrated with some of Pelosi’s priority to maintain caucus unity by keeping left-wing ideas like a public option or Medicare expansion off the table during the debate over Affordable Care Act appeal.

Yet despite these new developments, the dominant story of Pelosi’s standing vis-à-vis the caucus remains exactly what it’s been for the past 15 years. She’s a prodigious fundraiser to whom many members owe favors, and her main antagonists are white men with voting records that are at least somewhat more conservative than hers. That’s not a formula for success in today’s Democratic Party, and unless the rebels manage to recruit a more formidable challenger, Pelosi’s position will be secure for about as long as she wants it.

Pelosi is trying to pull off an unusual comeback

A lot of the disagreement around Pelosi among the chattering classes basically comes down to a disagreement about default assumptions. If you assume that a legislative leader is going to stay on as long as he or she wants to, then the case against Pelosi is not ultimately all that compelling. It’s true that her poll numbers are bad and that Republicans like to feature her in ads to motivate their base. But it’s also true that basically all legislative caucus leaders have bad poll numbers (Congress is perennially unpopular) and that any Democratic leader would likely be featured in ads designed to motivate the GOP base.

At the same time, the reality is that what Pelosi is trying to pull off is actually quite unusual.

  • When Democrats lost their House and Senate majorities in 1994, Rep. Tom Foley was defeated and Sen. George Mitchell didn’t run for reelection.
  • When the GOP lost their House and Senate majorities in 2006, Rep. Dennis Hastert stepped down as party leader and Sen. Bill Frist didn’t run for reelection.
  • When Democrats lost their Senate majority in 2014, Harry Reid stayed on as the party’s caucus leader, but he relatively quickly announced his upcoming retirement and paved the way for a transition to Chuck Schumer’s leadership.
  • Former Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt never presided over a majority, but he stepped down after the party lost seats in the 2002 midterms.

To find an example of a former speaker becoming speaker again, you need to look all the way back to the 1950s: Sam Rayburn and Joseph Martin swapped gavels a couple of times during an era when politics was much less polarized.

The normal winning political strategy these days is for a party to make a comeback by presenting itself as all new and radically improved, even if the basic ideology and policy framework remains the same. By having Pelosi as their leader, Democrats are essentially asking the voters of swing districts to decide they made a mistake back in 2010 and want to take back their old favorite party again. A new leader would simply let voters decide they’re tired of the GOP and ready to give a new group a shot.

Democratic candidates don’t like to talk about Pelosi

The biggest problem with Pelosi’s status in the leadership is probably seen by the behavior over the years of the Democratic House challengers on whose success she is counting to get elected speaker. Simply put, they don’t want to talk about it.

The Ossoff race threw this into particularly sharp relief, because in pretty much every visible respect, the Democratic Party establishment was fully aligned behind him — including with his strategy of offering noncommittal answers about Pelosi.

Jonathan Martin and Matt Flegenheimer reported after the election that as Pelosi rallied her loyal lieutenants in Congress: “Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky, heaped praise on Ms. Pelosi’s leadership skills but demurred when asked if he would want her to go to Louisville.”

“Not at a rally,” he told the reporters.

The basic question Pelosi’s camp has difficulty answering is what is the path forward for the party, really, if her own allies don’t want her speaking at their rallies? If a DCCC she largely controls can’t give its candidates a better answer to the question of whom they would support for speaker, then how is she ever going to get elected speaker?

The case for Pelosi

To Pelosi supporters, the idea that Democrats should ditch their longtime leader simply because she’s routinely smeared by Republicans smacks of appeasement.

The fact that she’s a woman in what’s still a very male-dominated congressional leadership also factors in here. Pelosi herself has indicated that she would likely have retired if Hillary Clinton had been elected president, but with that dream dashed, for the first woman speaker to be unceremoniously pushed aside — especially in favor of a man — would be a bitter pill for many Democratic women to swallow.

At times, the gender-based pushback can become a bit extreme. Pelosi’s staff has been known to try to persuade journalists that talk about a desire for a “fresh face” is a de facto sexist attack on Pelosi’s appearance, and last week’s pro-Pelosi social media pushback heavily partook of the notion that her critics were demanding a white male leader. It’s true that her last challenger, Ryan, was a white man. But the House Democratic caucus as a whole is fairly diverse, and there are any number of women and people of color who could serve in the role.

Indeed, one major knock on Pelosi’s leadership is that she’s failed to provide an upward path for younger members, including women, black people, and Latinos. Former Rep. Xavier Becerra, for example, was often discussed as a potential speaker someday, but he was encouraged to leave Congress to become California’s attorney general rather than groomed as a successor.

Fundamentally, however, Pelosi’s allies say that the job of a caucus leader isn’t to appear at rallies or to be immune to attacks from the other side. She was an effective legislator during her four years as speaker, and in the minority she’s done a skillful job of holding her caucus together in opposition to Trump. She raises boatloads of money, and she does so while maintaining a largely progressive ideological profile.

The most prominent member of the younger generation of Democratic caucus leaders, Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, could probably also raise Pelosi-style money, but he’s much closer to Wall Street, and his elevation would likely take the party in a more centrist direction.

You can’t beat something with nothing

Ultimately, the story of Pelosi’s longevity in office is not that mysterious. Ever since her 2002 whip race against Hoyer, her rivals for leadership have been white men who are positioned at least somewhat to her right ideologically, operating in the context of a House Democratic caucus that is increasingly diverse and increasingly progressive.

The bulk of Democrats are torn between admiring Pelosi’s leadership and appreciating her fundraising, on the one hand, and recognizing on the other hand that practically speaking, she is not particularly helpful to the cause of regaining the majority. But abstract recognition that a leader has some flaws is not enough to topple one, an opponent like Ryan clearly doesn’t have the juice, and progressive members are not wrong to fear that if she were to be pushed out, it’s likely she’d be succeeded by someone like Crowley whom they like less ideologically.

By contrast, Pelosi might really have a tough time fending off a challenge from someone like Vice Chair Linda Sánchez (D-CA) — a Latina Progressive Caucus member who would present a new look to the country while also cutting into Pelosi’s base in the House. The question, then, would be whether frontline members and potential challengers in red districts would actually prefer someone like that to Pelosi — faced with an alternative, they might decide they like Pelosi more than they realize. Then again, they might not and her fate would be sealed.

But so far, that’s entirely hypothetical. The grousing from restive progressives and younger members is largely divorced from the practical dynamics of caucus politics where Pelosi’s main critics are to her right. As long as that’s the case, the leadership is hers for as long as she wants it.